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Theater review: 'The Wake' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

March 29, 2010 |  6:28 pm

The wake 1
Huffington Post, meet Ellen, the liberal protagonist of Lisa Kron’s “The Wake.” If ever there was a character in need of a blog it’s this one, a freelance intellectual so obsessed with her own political musings she can’t stand to let a CNN news alert go by without a stream of agitated commentary.
Ellen’s indignation at current events, brought to life in all its multifaceted hues by the marvelous Heidi Schreck, is understandable. It’s Thanksgiving after the disputed 2000 presidential election, and hanging chads have spoiled her appetite for turkey. Yet Ellen’s makeshift New York family of gays, straights and in-betweens—gathered into the cramped East Village apartment she shares with her significant other, Danny (Carson Elrod)—would prefer to enjoy its repast in a James Carville-free zone. 

The play, which had its world premiere Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Leigh Silverman, offers a sprawling meditation on a recent swath of American history. The focus is on the two-term presidency of George W. Bush as experienced by Democrats who stood aghast on urban sidelines as the country, in their view, was driven into a ditch.  

Wake 11 Kron, a playwright and performer (she’s a founding member of the Five Lesbian Brothers), is best known for “Well,” her unorthodox mother-daughter drama that enjoyed a short but critically acclaimed run on Broadway (also directed by Silverman), and “2.5 Minute Ride,” her Obie-winning solo show juxtaposing an amusement park outing with a trip she took with her father to Auschwitz, where her grandparents were killed. Here, she’s operating in Tony Kushner territory, with a kind of lesbian fantasia on national themes, in which the hypocritical gap between questionable personal conduct and proud public views is measured.
“The Wake” mixes (somewhat awkwardly) retrospective scenes that play out in an unhurried realistic fashion with Ellen’s direct-address monologues agonizing over “the blind spot” in our vision that leads us—as individuals and as collective citizens—wildly astray. Projection collages by Alexander V. Nichols of news clips and headlines covering the election turmoil, 9/11, the Iraq war vote and other historical flashpoints attempt to broaden the story's scope.

Kron is unfailingly alert and probing throughout, though her work suffers from overwriting. Prolonged scenes distort the play’s dramatic shape and novelistic tangents distract from her central vision. Yet the work’s organizing principle, its habit of bringing together characters who can’t help pointing out one another’s perceptual shortcomings, sustains the savory irony even when momentum flags.

Fissures in friendships are evident at that opening-act Thanksgiving dinner, where political sensitivities would seem to be united. Danny’s sister Kayla (Andrea Frankle) and her more militantly gay partner, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), who live downstairs from Danny and Ellen, find themselves stepping gingerly around topics that are sure to provoke one of Ellen’s diatribes.

The most striking contrast, however, is between Ellen and her friend Judy (Deirdre O’Connell), an international aid and human rights worker from a poor background who has flown in from Africa to attend her mother’s funeral in Kentucky.  To call Judy emotionally shut down would be an understatement, and as played with delicious deadpan by O’Connell, a treasure of the off-Broadway theater scene, this taciturn visitor throws into relief the privileged nature of Ellen’s alarmed chatter.

The narcissistic side of Ellen’s jabbering is further exposed through an unexpected romantic development. While in Cambridge to give a talk at Harvard (Ellen's exact field is sketchy but her idol seems to be urban renewal scourge Jane Jacobs), she meets up with Amy (a sympathetic Emily Donahoe), an acquaintance from her youth, and promptly falls head over heels in love. Kron has written for these women one of the more persuasive stage seductions, a moment in which Amy, trying to define the concept of “negative space,” clutches Ellen’s hand and traces the area between her fingers.

Accustomed to having it all, Ellen receives Danny’s consent to pursue an affair with Amy while continuing their live-in relationship. Danny may be a very real type, the kind of passive guy who masks his true feelings behind a facade of gentle sarcasm, but as the only male character in the play he seems rather thinly drawn.  (Elrod, it should be noted, leaves an appealing impression, and the ensemble’s rapport is one of Silverman’s production’s main pleasures.)

How refreshing to come upon such a wide variety of relationship possibilities in an apartment that doesn’t seem like it’s been recently featured in Architectural Digest. (Scenic designer David Korins appears to know his way around overpriced tenements.) Kron pokes playful fun at the range of sexual options when Tessa (an effervescent Miriam F. Glover), Judy’s small-town mixed-race niece, arrives on the scene and tries to sort out the different categories of attachment that seems to include everything but old-fashioned heterosexual marriage.

Certainties are pleasantly banished, and like one of her own characters, Kron can’t resist picking at the scab of words to see if there’s any truth underneath. Ellen tries to redress the injustice of the world through her interpretations and critiques, yet the unfairness she perpetrates on others simply gets translated into something that sounds more acceptable. 

If “The Wake” succeeds more as a character study than as an assessment of the historical zeitgeist, it’s probably because Ellen is too much of an individual to bear the metaphorical burden placed on her. Those blind spots she’s begun to recognize don’t belong to her exclusively. But her journey into understanding the heartbreak and loss that others take for granted is too idiosyncratic to explain the mess we’re digging ourselves out of. Still, you won't regret accompanying her along her brightly talkative way.  

--Charles McNulty

Follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

“The Wake,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends  April 18. $20 to $45.  (213) 628-2772 or Running time:  2 hours, 40 minutes

Photos: Top: Carson Elrod, Heidi Schreck, Danielle Skraastad and Andrea Frankle. Bottom: Schreck, left, Emily Donahoe. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times